After 15 races of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing where the cuisine and beverage of choice for fans at the track is a giant turkey leg and tall-boy Budweiser, we go to the serene surroundings of Sonoma County where cheese, crackers, and wine stuffed in picnic baskets along the rolling hills can be found with Northern Californian race fans. It truly is a different scene and itís very appropriate that is such a vastly different type of setting also has the racing be about as different, or at least different from 34 of the 36 scheduled races.
Only twice year do NASCAR fans get to see racing on road courses where the big bulky stock cars traverse through left and right turns in a racing style that the rest of world can relate to, once at Sonoma, and the other at Watkins Glen in early August. Because the racing is so different from the constant left turns of the weekly ovals, a few drivers really stand out from others just because of their past history.
The drivers who grew up through the ranks of stock car racing on ovals dread the two races a year, while others who had go-kart and open-wheel racing experience before jumping into stock cars thrive on it. Entering and exiting turns and maximum speed with minimal breaking is the key to success on the road courses and while it may not be genetically proven that some are better from birth, history has shown that those with the early experience from a young age do better than those that donít.
Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, and Robby Gordon all use their past experience and excel big time for these races while others like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton, and Matt Kenseth all race like they canít for next week to arrive.
At the beginning of the year, the NASCAR Nation was complaining non-stop about Jimmie Johnson winning every week as he took three of the first races. Since then, Denny Hamlin has gone on to win five of the last 10 races with Kyle and Kurt Busch combining to win three or the other 10 prompting the boo-birds to heckle from around the country again.
I donít get it, do the fans want no one to win, or do they just want someone new to win every week, or is it just a matter of 50% of the NASCAR Nation being Dale Earnhardt fans who havenít seen him win in the last two years? Itís probably a combination of all of the above.
Hamlin and the Busch brothers will be an interesting look this week because they have all had some success on the road courses and all three are running better than everyone else right now.
The Las Vegas Hilton Super Book installed Tony Stewart as the 9/2 favorite to win this weeks Toyota-Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. This is the second straight year that Stewart has been listed as the favorite on the Sonoma road course after Jeff Gordon occupied the top slot for 11 straight years thanks to his five career wins on the track.
Stewart is a two-time winner at Sonoma and also has five other wins on NASCARís other road course at Watkins Glen. The crown that Jeff Gordon proudly wore as NASCARís best road course driver has been passed on to Stewart. Gordonís are still listed low and respectful at 5/1, but Gordon admittedly has said that his team no longer spends the time and energy they once did for the road course races because it only represents two races a year and itís reflected at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. His skills are still there and heís hungry for a win, so if he gets in on the right pit sequence, he could be a contender once again.
Tony Stewart is searching for his first win this season and also battling to cement his place within the top-12 in the Chase for Championship. The two road courses give Stewart an edge over all the other fringe drivers that are borderline at making it.
A driver, like Stewart, who can make up some serious ground in points both this week and at Watkins Glen is Juan Pablo Montoya. Unlike Stewart, Montoya isnít within the top-12 at the moment. In fact, heís barely in the top-20 -- 189 points behind Mark Martin for the 12th and final position with 11 races to go. He is a long shot to make it, but he and his team knows that their advantage over everyone else lies within the two road courses and then maybe Indianapolis and Pocono. This week is an absolute must quality finish for Montoya, as in a top-3 finish for him to utilize and gain ground from a road course.
Listed at 5/1 along with Gordon is 2008 Sonoma winner Kyle Busch, who also won the same year at Watkins Glen. 2007 Sonoma winner, and master International road course driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, is listed at 8/1 with Australian Marcos Ambrose. Ambrose finished third in last years race.
Because the track is so technical, many teams bring in road racing specialists to compete. Ron Fellows and Boris Said have been the best hired guns over the years. Fellows wonít be racing this week, but Said is listed at 30/1. Team Red Bull has brought in Mattias Ekstrom to handle their No. 83 entry and he is listed at 30/1 as well.
Robby Gordon won at Sonoma in 2003 and has two entries this week with the other driven by P.J. Jones. Gordon is listed at 25/1 and Jones is 200/1.
Mark Martin has four career road course wins, including his 1997 Sonoma win, and is listed at 50/1. Martin once wore the road racing crown as NASCARís best before passing it on to Gordon, who then passed it off to Stewart. Martinís last top-five finish at Sonoma came in 2000 with third-place.
TOP-5 Finish Prediction
1) #14 Tony Stewart (9/2)
2) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (8/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
5) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)